The dust from free agency in the NHL is now starting to settle and rosters are starting to take shape around the league. For Devils fans, it was a little bit of a roller coaster week, with measures of good news and bad news emerging from the NHL’s hot stove for the team. First, the Devils were unable to land their biggest target in free agency, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who instead ended up across the Hudson River with that team that wears blue. But with moods turning sour at how free agency was going, the team then swung a big trade, fleecing the capped-out Washington Capitals in a swap that netted top-6 forward Marcus Johansson for a second and third round pick. Later in the week though, the latest Ilya Kovalchuk saga in New Jersey came to a disappointing close with Kovalchuk trudging back to the KHL to play in SKA St. Petersburg for one more season after a big market didn’t develop for his services. Throw in the signing of respected veteran bottom-sixer Brian Boyle at the open of free agency, and the Devils had what you might classify as a okay week.
Now a week removed from the start of free agency, though, the team’s most glaring need, defense, remains a significant issue. That’s not to say the Devils can’t still improve it, but the opportunities to do so are beginning to run out for them. Last season, the Devils almost certainly had one of the worst defensive units in the entire NHL, so substantial improvement was necessary to get to something approaching “adequate.” Unless you, for some reason, think swapping out Jon Merrill for Mirco Mueller is going to move the needle in a big way, the problems on defense are likely to persist heading into 2017-18 as things stand. And without major help arriving on defense, there is a chance that the solid pack of forwards the Devils have assembled at this point will again be hamstrung by a weak blue line.
Coming into the offseason, there were a few main ways that it seemed like the Devils could improve their outlook on defense. First was the expansion draft, where teams would be forced to deal players from positions of strength for fear of seeing them grabbed by Vegas for nothing. That market never really materialized though, as Vegas likely undercut a lot of potential dealing by accepting, for lack of a better term, bribes from teams to not take their quality exposed players. There has been much debate over how well Vegas ultimately wielded that tool but regardless, they certainly mellowed the pre-expansion trade market. The Devils did make one trade before the pre-expansion freeze, but it was the deal that brought in the aforementioned Mirco Mueller, who is more of a project than someone who is likely to cure the Devils’ ills.
Beyond the expansion draft, there were a couple clear backup routes to fix the defensive issues: throw a ton of money at Kevin Shattenkirk to get him in into red and black and/or leverage the return of Ilya Kovalchuk into some significant help on the back end. As we know now, the Devils were unable (or unwilling) to make an offer to sway Shattenkirk away from the Rangers and the Kovalchuk Sweepstakes ended with a whimper and the Russian winger slinking back to St. Petersburg for one more year in the KHL.
These developments leave the Devils in a bit of a tight position now. Between striking out with the big fish in the free agency pond and the inevitable non-inevitability of various Inevitable Trades™, the Devils have to figure out how they are going to improve the defensive corps enough to not get caved in regularly again this season. As it stands, the team probably has only a few options remaining to improve their outlook.
Dip Into What’s Left of the Free Agent Market
This year’s free agent class was not a particularly good one from the start, so with many of the bigger names off the board one week in, the options have not gotten much better. If there is a positive to take out of the Devils inactivity in free agency to this point, it’s that the Devils will probably avoid handing out a potentially disastrous contract to anyone (see: Alzner, Karl and Kulikov, Dmitry). Still, with the team low on internal options, resorting to picking through the heap of this year's free agents to find some help may be necessary.
There are some potential fits out there, but any improvement they may result in would probably be incremental. A name like Cody Franson has come up a fair amount and could be an option, though he probably isn’t anything better than a #4 and the Devils left side seems like a bigger need. An older player on a one-year stopgap-type deal like Andrei Markov or Brian Campbell may serve the Devils well while they try to figure out better long term solutions in the next year. The Devils could also take a chance on a guy like Simon Despres, whose career had promise but has been derailed by injuries in the past few years. Again, there isn’t too much to get excited about out there, but a few low-risk short-term moves are possible and could at least get the team closer to respectability.
Trade a Forward
If the Devils want a true impact defenseman at this point, this seems like really their one remaining option. Their group of forwards is starting to shape up into a pretty solid one, and might even qualify as something of a “position of strength” at the moment. This would be a little bit of “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” so to speak, since trading a substantial piece from the forwards will have a tangible impact on team depth, but the situation on defense is somewhat dire. We just saw a swap in the other direction that netted the Devils their only truly elite skater in Taylor Hall. Shero is unlikely to be able to pull a move that good going in the forward-for-defenseman direction, but if he can get a top-pairing defenseman from a move that doesn’t include anyone you’d consider a centerpiece, that can be a win.
The only really untouchable forwards in the Devils’ current group are likely Taylor Hall and Nico Hischer. Given the situation at right wing, you could make an argument that Kyle Palmieri falls into that category as well at the moment. If the Devils can move another forward for a difference-maker on D, it’s something the team probably has to consider. Whether they were to trade a proven veteran scorer (a lot of fan speculation has surrounded Adam Henrique) or one of their young up-and-comers (like Pavel Zacha or Michael McLeod) they could probably bring back something of value. Obviously, the deal would have to be right for the team to go through with it, but if New Jersey wants a legit top pairing defenseman, they will have to pay a price for it at this point.
There’s always a chance that some sort of freak accident will leave one or more of the Devils defensemen with super powers. Like, maybe Josh Jacobs will be bit by a radioactive spider in Binghamton and come up to the NHL and be Nick Lidstrom for the next 15 years. Or perhaps John Moore is exposed to some sort of gamma rays that give him super strength and the ability to cover his defensive assignments. Failing that, maybe Andy Greene at least discovers the Fountain of Youth? And not metaphorically speaking, I’m talking, like, the one that Ponce de Leon was looking for. If one or all of those things happen, the Devils should be in pretty good shape.
Assuming the last section’s options aren’t available, what are you hoping to see from the Devils the rest of this offseason to improve the defense? Do you think it’s possible to fix this defensive unit at this point heading into next season? If you have any free agents you’d prefer to see signed or a trade proposal to toss out, feel free to share them. It’s clear that this team needs a lot of help on the blue line but it’s certainly less clear how they can ultimately make it happen. Sound off with your thoughts on the options for New Jersey to improve the defense below in the comments and thanks for reading.